Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In our dreams

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 21

I have now lived fourteen years longer than my father, and well past the age when his own father died. A century ago, the average male lifetime in the United States was 45 years. Today it’s in the late-70s—and rising. Never before in history have so many of us had the expectation of a ripe old age. The average lifetime won’t rise forever, of course, at least not without some genetic jiggering. There are biological clocks ticking in every cell of our bodies. Our cells are fated one-by-one to die, each at its appointed time, until finally the entire colony expires.

For multicelled creatures like ourselves, death is not the opposite of life; death is part of life. Single-celled organisms are potentially immortal. With an appropriate environment and nutrients, bacteria can live forever. Genetically-programmed, inevitable death appeared rather late in the history of life, just 600 million years ago, at about the same time as sex and multicellularity. In recent decades scientists have begun to understand that if you want to have creatures with eyes and ears, brains and backbones, gonads and gods, then you must have death, too. Death is the driving engine of evolution.

An individual cell in a multicellular organism can do one of three things—divide, specialize, or commit suicide. It has been estimated that if division and specialization occurred without cell suicide, an 80-year-old person would have two tons of bone marrow and a gut ten miles long. The whole business of building and maintaining a multicelled organism is a genetically orchestrated dance of cell division and cell death. For example, as a human embryo develops, the extremities of the limbs first look like stumpy ping-pong paddles. Then cells start to selectively die in a way that turns the paddles into hands and feet with digits. We have fingers and toes because certain cells are programmed for suicide. The Grim Reaper has an alternate role as a Michelangelo who releases the statue’s form from within the block of marble.

Sooner or later, however, in multicelled creatures such as ourselves, the reaping runs ahead of the shaping and we experience senescence, the physical decline of old age. Scientists are not sure how or why senescence evolved, but humans are the only creatures for which it makes much difference. For other animals and plants (and including humans until recently), death by accident or violence or disease was a more likely fate than doddering old age. If evolution never selected against senescence, it may be because it never had much opportunity to do so.

My father’s mind was sharp until the last few days of his life, when disease cut short his “three score years and ten,” the carefully orchestrated balance of cell division and death having gone wildly astray. His experience was typical of most humans throughout history; my two grandfathers died in their forties, one of a tragic accident, the other of pneumonia. We live today in a civilization that has invented antibiotics and childproof caps, vaccinations and seat belts, sterile parturition and the ABM Treaty. It is possible that I will collect my Social Security check for another 10 or 20 years. This is a huge new thing in the history of life: Not nature red in tooth and claw, but Centrum Silver and senior aerobics. For most of the history of our race, death came as a bolt from the blue—a snake bite, an impacted tooth, a bash on the head by the warrior next door, starvation. Now, with the benefit of medical science and the orderly assistance of civilized society, many of us live long enough to see that mortality is a necessary part of the plan, a corollary of life that is built into every cell of our bodies. Death is life’s necessary partner, the ultimate tinkerer, endlessly creative.

Of my father’s death I have five volumes of his handwritten notes. I know his every thought for ten terrible weeks, every blast of radiation, every pill. What is strangely absent is any recognition that death is inevitable. The slightest uptick from his well of pain is invariably recorded as a harbinger of recovery. Where are the Big Questions, the ones that are supposed to occupy a dying man? Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What does it all mean? My father seems to have been more interested in the Little Questions. How many inches is my head from the top of the bed? How many minutes since the last Percodan pill? Will the next cobalt treatment correct the double vision in my right eye? These questions were not as trivial to him as they might seem to us. It was by the accumulation and analysis of apparently trivial data that engineers and scientists have answered other no-so-little Little Questions. How are atoms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen forged in the cores of stars? How do enzymes in every cell of our bodies build proteins, carbohydrates and lipids? How does a hummingbird hover? How does one increase the average span of life from 40 years to 80 years? What my father was doing may seem trivial and fruitless in his dire circumstances, but he was celebrating at the end what he celebrated all his life—things that can be told and named. The army of rampaging cells that escaped from his prostate at age 64 and infiltrated his entire body were part of what is, just as the moving mechanical belt that grasped his father’s glove and ripped off his arm was part of what is. He fought the spreading cancerous cells in his body with the instruments of is. He was an engineer, a handyman, to the very end, but no match for the explosive power of life run sadly amok.

In the final days, his journals descend into a bit of chaos as his faculties become muddled. The doctors and priests come and go. Family and friends attend. And still the current of optimism flows through the pages, the handyman’s faith that with a little ingenuity anything can be fixed. The doses and times. The ups and downs of the energy cycle. Nausea. Morphine. Mylanta. Milk. Bleeding. Oxygen. IV. Antibiotics. A hodgepodge of hopeful notes, as if he were rooting around in the junk drawers of the big black cabinet in the basement, looking for just the right gizmo to set the mechanism aright. At last, other hands take over the journal, recording what he no longer has the strength or clarity of mind to record himself. His last words: 6:45 “Let the light come in.” 7:00 “Purple people eaters.” 7:10 “I hear a bell.” And then, a joke, as he is given an injection to control his spasms. 7:12 “Shot was hot. Hot shot!”

In the year he died, senior students at Notre Dame High School dedicated their yearbook to him. They reproduced his photograph from the yearbook of 1928, with the description that had accompanied the photo then: “The sterling qualities of honor and integrity are possessed in an unusual degree by Chester Raymo. His ability to plan and to execute has caused him to be chosen leader in almost every school activity which calls for a cool head and quick brain. Beneath his rather serious exterior there runs a thread of humor and fun which rises to the surface on frequent occasions.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

As if

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 20

He taught me to use a drawknife, and a brace and bit. He taught me how to include a spring suspension in a soapbox racer, and how to take it out again. He taught me how to cut and splice celluloid film. He had a headful of handy skills and was happy to share them. He was, in fact, a born teacher, and found the time in the margins of his full-time employment as a quality control engineer to teach night courses at the local technical schools on everything from welding to blueprint reading, from metallurgy to foremanship. It was probably inevitable that when he retired from the American Lava Corporation at age sixty he would look for a teaching position. And he found it, at his old high school, Notre Dame Academy in Chattanooga, now moved to a bright new campus in a rather smarter part of town. He taught mathematics and physics, and served as plant manager and assistant principal. His favorite course was geometry, and he had in mind writing a high school geometry text. Even in the final weeks of his life, confined to his hospital bed, he wrote in his journal: “I should also use this time at a table of some sort and begin my long overdue geometry book.” He got no further than the first sentence: “Begin with a point.” His cancer had a point to make, and it was final.

As John Updike points out in a poem, death exists nowhere in nature except in our forebodings. As far as we know, no other creature, animal or plant, has an awareness of its own mortality. Only in human consciousness is death anticipated, as a dark foreboding or promise of release. And so much else is carried along in that baggage of anticipation. Courage. Fear. Virtue. Guilt. All of this comes out in my father’s journals—the ambivalent foreboding rising now and then to the surface through that carefully contrived overlay of data and analysis. “Begin with a point.” The imagined geometry book was another instrument for holding death at bay, not so much a practical project as a palliative, a placebo.

In the Roman Catholic theology of my youth only humans had immortal souls. In the heaven of our imaginations there were no animals or plants, no victory gardens or picket fences or starry nights. No dawns or dusks. No seasons. I suppose I pictured heaven as rather like the hospital my father died in, all stainless steel and white paint and pale green gowns and angels with pushcarts and mops going around swabbing up the invisible microbes that had managed to slip in on our resurrected feet, and some little device down the hall going ping-ping-ping counting off the seconds of eternity. Not a terribly attractive prospect, but I have never come up with anything more plausible. I search my father’s journals for his anticipation of the afterlife. His attention is on the present. In the noontime of his handyman days he had used to say, “With a little ingenuity, anything can be fixed.” Until the moment when he is no longer able to scrawl his notes he is searching for an escape clause, the triumph of conscious will over the out-of-whack cells that were rampaging his body. He records a dream of “waking up in a formless container—a cocoon!”

Occasionally in the journals I find a puzzled “Why me?” He has so much left to do, courses to teach, a geometry book to write. Where is the justice? But nature is arbitrary and violent, and cares not a whit for human conceptions of what is fair and not fair. Massive black holes at the centers of galaxies gobble up gas and stars. In the arms of galaxies suns explode with a force that shatters surrounding worlds. Comets and asteroids smash into the Earth causing mass extinctions. In the midst of such arbitrary violence, what is the importance of an individual human life? As Loren Eiseley wrote: “Instability lies at the heart of he world.” Order and disorder, life and death, cooperation and competition are the paired principles of nature’s creative force.

There is a line by the Irish poet Pat Boran: “The spirit loves the flesh, as the hand the glove.” That fit, of spirit to flesh, comes across in the journals, in all those drawings of his body splayed on the bed, the angles, the dimensions. The material world of nuts and bolts, ceramic widgets, flesh and bones was his bailiwick, his heaven on earth. The spirit is flesh, yes, but more than flesh. This I learned from my father, as long ago as those starry nights on the badminton court when he taught me the names of the constellations, or those hours in the garage with drawknife and plane: The spirit is flesh in interaction with a universe of infinite complexity. The windows of the flesh are thrown open to the world. The spirit is a wind of awareness, a pool stirred by angels. And, yes, some part of the spirit will linger when the flesh is gone, as memories in other flesh, as words and stories—a fleshless hand that retains the shape of the glove. He was not a philosopher or a saint. His very ordinariness was his crown. He was a handyman, a teacher. And this is what he taught: Let us love the world, this world, the world outside the windows of the flesh, for in truth there is no other world, no other world for us except the world we inhale like a deep, deep breath and seal into the soul.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 19

And he was there with his movie camera, as I plummeted down Ninth Street, in my Soapbox racer, helmeted head tucked low, as he was always there for any of his children’s special occasions. Any handyman in the 1930s and 40s with an artsy-techno streak would inevitably be drawn to home movies. Kodak introduced black-and-white 8mm film in 1932, and Kodachrome film came along in 1936. I don’t recall my father ever being particularly interested in still photography—he left that to his mother and sister—but he took to home movies like a duck to water.

The first films in his oeuvre were black-and-white. I recall footage of a big steam shovel (yes, real steam!) working on Ninth Street outside my mother’s and father’s family homes (yes, the same street that at the other end hosted the Soapbox Derby), and my sister Anne’s first birthday party in 1939. Surely, I saw these later on, probably several times, for I would have been too young to remember firsthand Dad’s earliest dabbles in the Hollywood art. These were the standard four-minute Kodak flicks on metal reels; when the war started the reels became plastic.

Reliable memories kick in from about the time the war began. His camera was a keywound Cine-Kodak. He was seldom without it. Reel by reel his collection grew—each yellow box returned from Kodak processing neatly labeled—eventually filling a cabinet in the upstairs hall. It seems I spent my entire childhood either self-consciously acting for the camera or sitting on the living room floor with my sibs—Mom enthroned in her wing-back chair—as Dad projected his films onto a roll-up screen with his Keystone projector. Shooting movies indoors required floodlights, with big tin reflectors, mounted on tripods. We ripped into our Christmas presents or licked birthday-cake frosting off our fingers in blazing illumination. I wonder if always being “on set” turned us into little prima donnas, showoffs for life. Conspicuously under-represented in Dad’s movies was my mother, who was adverse to the marrow of her bones to show-offery of any sort. She generally absented herself from the “set,” retiring to some other corner of the house, leaving the wannabe Hollywood director and his pint-sized actors to their glitzy business.

On at least one occasion, Dad’s home-movie making veered towards the professional. He made a promotional film for the American Lava Corporation which must have been one of the first such enterprises. I remember how it began. First the title, spelled out on a black background with the white plastic alphabets you could buy for such purposes. Then, a cascade of the company’s ceramic insulators spilled out over the title. I thought it was as good as anything I had seen in a Hollywood movie. Making his longer films required splicing, and his splicing equipment was a handyman’s dream: two reels mounted at opposite ends of a wood board, a magnifying viewer, and a wonderful stainless-steel precision cutter and clamp with pins to hold the film’s sprocket holes exactly in place. He taught me the art of cutting and splicing, which subsumed the greater art of editing. It was a skill I would later put to advantage in my writing.

Home movies in the 1940s and 50s were the cutting edge of the creative handyman’s gee-whizery, the place where art and technology met. The Cine-Kodak camera with its big flat wind-up key, the clickety-clack Keystone projector, the blazing hot floodlights, the stink of splicing fluid. The arty gimmicks—titles, zooms, segues—and the little actors performing their tricks on cue. These days anyone with a mobile phone can make a movie, and watch it wherever you want, even send it across the world through e-mail. For me, the idea of personal filmmaking will always be associated with that magic moment when the family gathered in the living room, Dad threaded the Keystone, the room lights were turned off, and—clickety, clickety, clickety—the powerful tungsten bulb in its cooling-finned housing projected images of the silent Shirley Temple wannabes onto the silver screen.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Doing the math

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 18

The bookshelves may have belonged to Mom, but the basement belonged to Dad. And the garage. There was a freestanding, single-car garage next to the house, with slightly sagging doors that didn’t close properly. I don’t recall that my father ever parked the car in the garage. Rather, it was a place for him to store the detritus of the handyman’s life, the stuff too big or unwieldy to fit in the basement workshop—planks of wood, half-empty paint cans, the rusty lawnmower whose blades needed sharpening, the wheelbarrow with the limp left leg. It was in the garage that I participated with my father on the most intense of our common handyman projects: my two downhill “soapbox” racers.

The All-American Soapbox Derby was established in 1934, and reached its heyday in the 1950s, about the time I decided to compete. Soapbox Derby racers were built by kids and powered only by gravity on a downhill track. Standardized steel axles, wheels, and helmets were supplied by the national organization. There was an entrance fee, generally paid by a local business sponsor who got to paint its logo on the car. Local competitions were held in dozens of cities and the winners competed in the nationals in Akron, Ohio.

Chet and his 1948 car.
I was almost 12 years old. I had picked up lots of practical skills from my father, and he certainly encouraged my participation. More than encouraged. He got out his drafting tools and designed me a car, then taught me how to build it. Cars were supposed to be entirely the creation of the boys (no girls in those days)—the proverbial soapboxes on wheels—but by 1948 it was generally conceded that the derby was a family affair. In fact, the cars that won sometimes had the look of being designed by Ferrari engineers and built by teams of expert mechanics in professional machine shops—and probably were. While my father was certainly designer-in-chief of my first racer, he insisted that I do the construction, all with hand tools he showed me how to use. I mastered the usual tools—handsaw, plane, chisels, brace and bit—and became something of an expert with the drawknife. The skin of the car was made from the thin slat sides of orange crates, scrounged from local markets, wrapped around a skeleton of wood salvaged from who-knows-where. The surface was hand-sanded to a fine sheen and given several coats of enamel.

All of that was well and good, but my father’s passion for mechanical tinkering got the better of him. The official steel axles that came with the wheels were three-quarters of an inch square. We embedded them in wood casings, with independently suspended tops and bottoms and drilled-out cylindrical cavities near the wheels in which we embedded coil springs. A coil-spring suspension of my father’s design! The axle casings were four-inches thick, sticking out from each side of the body of the car. I didn’t grasp—at least not yet—that a spring suspension on a smooth track was of little use, and presumably was only there for the comfort of the driver, who hardly needed comfort on a ride that lasted about a minute. Those ridiculously thick axles with embedded springs surely added enough air resistance to slow me down by the fraction of a second that would cost the race. We raced in heats of three. I came in second in my inaugural plunge down Ninth Street.

Chet at the wheel of his 1949 car.
I was a quick learner, however. After the 1948 race it dawned on me that coil-spring suspensions and the ingenious steering and braking mechanisms designed by my father were irrelevant to winning, and might even be detrimental. Wheel lubrication and air resistance: That’s what I would concentrate on. My 1949 car was not the engineering marvel of its predecessor, but it was slimmer and sleeker. The axles were only as thick as the three-quarter-inch steel they encased in a slender airfoil. My father watched these modifications with approval. He grasped the concept of “simple is better,” once he got his gizmo-ization in check. He went out of his way to figure out what might be the very best oil for the wheels. In that second competition, I won my heat, which meant I got to run the hill a second time.

The skills and concepts I learned from my father out there in the family garage have served me well all my life, especially the lesson that the most beautiful contrivances are those that are most perfectly suited to their task. I can’t remember why I didn’t compete again in 1950, probably because I had become more interested in girls than in building racers, or maybe because my father had other projects on his mind. Still, I had learned a lot about what it means to be an handyman, and no doubt soapbox version 3.0 would have been even slimmer and sleeker—and painted and buffed to a fare-thee-well.